The Purpose of Hymns during the Reformation: Part 1

By Monica Berndt

The Reformation, sparked when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the cathedral door in Wittenburg, spread across most of northern and eastern Europe with such determination and speed that it shocked the Catholic Church. One of the questions that is often asked about this reformation is how Luther’s ideas managed to spread throughout Germany and resonate with enough people that they abandoned the relative safety of Catholicism for Lutheranism. An important part of this spread lies in the rich vernacular hymn tradition of the Lutheran Church; a tradition that Luther himself started by composing many new German language hymns for congregations to sing. These hymns were instrumental in spreading and teaching Lutheran ideas to laymen who had never even heard a church service in their own language before. Hymns functioned as a kind of propaganda for the Lutheran church by spreading Luther’s basic teachings in German through songs that everyday people could sing whenever they wanted.

Luther wanted to keep the basic structure of the Catholic Mass, yet make it more accessible to the German people. Officially, all Catholic Masses were done in Latin, a tradition begun in the early days of the Holy Roman Empire and lasted through the 20th century. While we cannot know exactly how each particular parish celebrated the Mass, we do know that there were many prohibitions passed by the Catholic church forbidding the use of German hymns and replacing the Latin Masses with German from before Luther’s time.1 Luther’s primary concern was that services and hymns should be in the language of the people participating so that they could know exactly what they were being taught.2 His hymns gave the common people the power to understand their own beliefs and an access to theology that they had been previously denied. The music of the Reformation became “an instrument to improve literacy, unlock scripture, and to promote evangelical learning,” which allowed the everyday man to understand the basic doctrines taught in the church.3 Hymns had a clear purpose grounded both in Luther’s beliefs about the position of music and in the idea that people other than the clergy could participate in services.

Sources:

1 Herl, Joseph. Worship Wars in Early Lutheranism: Choir, Congregation, and Three Centuries of Conflict. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
2 Schalk, Carl. Music in Early Lutheranism. Saint Louis: Concordia Academic Press, 2001.
3 Loewe, J. Andreas. “Why Do Lutherans Sing? Lutherans, Music, and the Gospel in the First Century of the Reformation.” Church History, vol 82, no. 1. (2013): 69–89. Accessed April 16, 2017.

Monica Berndt is the music director at Messiah Lutheran Church in Seattle, WA and studies music and history at the University of Washington. This is the first part of a paper written for her Medieval Music History course last spring. She can be reached at acinomtdnreb@gmail.com.

Created: October 1st, 2017